Friday, July 22, 2011

Pleasure of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others

Germans are known for their efficiency. German engineering is known for its precision and innovation, and its spacious roads lauded and emulated all around. It is hardly surprising that the language follows the dictum of efficiency as well. Then again I suppose if your language is liberally peppered with (and I kid you not) 38 and 39 letter words you are uniquely equipped to be judicious with your words. Why hello, rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften. It's a pleasure to meet you.

I have a friend who is very fluent in German and would probably find a lot of faults with my analysis below, but I don't think he reads this blog. So for the purposes of this post, I am your resident expert on German words.

Since English is a Germanic language (linguist wonks classify extant languages in "language families" and under that system, English falls under the Germanic family, which itself is a sub-division of the Indo-European language family), we have borrowed plenty German words over the years. Did you, for instance, ever experience angst at having to eat sauerkraut when you were in kindergarten?

But there are some German words that are so awe-inspiring for their frugality and precision, we have borrowed them without any modifications and with apparent gusto. Meet schadenfreude. Sham-what? Exactly. Schadenfreude. 

The word schadenfreude means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others." Now why would you want to use seven words to describe something when just one awesome German word would suffice? Plus it makes you sound oh-so bourgeois.

Schadenfreude's precision is clearly admirable. It is not quite jealousy. Nor is it meanness or malice. It is somehow a combination of all of the above and some more. It perfectly captures a complex feeling in one succinct word - something that English fails to do in this case. Let me demonstrate: 

  • The neighbor's damn dog wouldn't shut up for days but now he is lost? That warm feeling rising through your gut is not because of the heat wave. It's the warm glow of schadenfreude.
  • Some jerk in a bright yellow Camaro rudely cut you off on the 405 without using blinkers? Well when you see him getting a ticket five minutes from now, the semi-cool air coming from your15-year old Nissan's AC is bound to be laced with some schadenfreude
  • That spring in your step after you watched Rupert Murdoch get pied in the face? Schadenfreude
Experiencing schadenfreude is often like being face deep in rich, creamy milkshake. It is an oddly satisfying feeling, one that is likely tapping into our primal urge to outdo others and guard our interests. Schadenfreude eliminates the need to mutter angry stuff like "that bastard deserved it" or "I am not a bad person, but man that jackass needed to be taught a lesson." The greatest pleasure, however, is knowing that there is a nifty little word that so deliciously represents the precise nature of our feelings at particular moments in life.

The next time you watch someone get fired by The Donald on a new season of The Apprentice, take a bite of your schnitzel and raise a glass of your heineken. The latter is not German, I know, but what the heck, it sure sounds German.


  1. Almost made a Heineken correction, but noticed yours just before posting. There's probably a short English word for my mistake

  2. How 'bout calling it an oversight?